Lost in translation: how one wrong word can spell disaster

Anyone who travels abroad regularly will be familiar with the scene: taking a seat in a local coffeeshop or café, you’re approached by a smiling waitress eager to take your order.

Not speaking the local language, you point at the picture of a steaming cup of coffee on the laminated menu and, with a hopeful expression, enquire ‘decaf?’ You receive a blank stare in response. Now, where did you put that phrasebook?

But imagine a different scenario.

This time it’s not a friendly but confused waitress, but emergency medical staff in an impoverished African backwater. And it’s not a coffee preference you’re trying to communicate but an extreme allergy to penicillin.

This situation, or a thousand just like it, can mean the difference between life and death when a crisis occurs abroad. And Tangiers International understands this.

The company speaks 90 of the world’s most common languages and dialects and is able to instruct instantaneous and accurate translation and interpretation for those it doesn’t.

This polyglotism is due to its partnership with local field agents, situated in more than 100 of the world’s most dangerous, remote or politically-volatile countries. These agents not only speak local languages, but also understand the cultural idiosyncrasies which need to be observed when communicating with local officials, medical staff or community leaders.

Carlos Hernandez, operations manager for Tangiers International, said: “If you go to a hospital and you don’t understand the lingo, then the repercussions could be dire. It could be that you’ve had a recent operation, or that you suffer from a heart condition. Anything like that, we need to be able to communicate it accurately to medical staff.

“It’s not only the language, however, but also the cultural differences, the customs. When we send a local agent to a hospital, for example, they’re more likely to get the job done. It’s important to have someone in the area who knows how things work.”

When instructed, Tangiers’ agents make sure they are on the scene as quickly as possible, leaving the patient to concentrate on their recovery.

Carlos recalled a medical evacuation carried out by Tangiers recently in which an Catholic nun, stranded in war-torn Libya, was reported to have suffered kidney failure.

It was only when Tangiers’ agent arrived on the scene and spoke to local medical staff that he discovered she’d actually suffered damage to her spine – a diagnosis which altered the evacuation protocol profoundly.

Tangiers’ translation services do not end at medical care, however.

Navigating seemingly-endless bureaucracy can be a daunting task when dealing with an international medical insurance claim. Employing local field agents means that whether the red tape is written in Arabic or Swahili, Pashto or Farsi – it can be overcome.

Due to the countries Tangiers operates in, even something as simple as travel advice may contain crucial information required to remain safe.

Carlos said: “Let’s say the doctor says to you that you need to go to such-and-such clinic, but not to use a certain road because it’s been taken by militia forces. We do deal with conflict areas so it’s crucial that people understand the messages they’re given.”